Sketches of Superstitions, Saturday March 7, 1840, pp.55-56.

[Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal Contents]



   THE introduction of Christianity among the Goths of northern Europe had naturally the same influence in abolishing the dark and gloomy fictions of their primitive mythology, as it has been shown to have exercised in the case of the Anglo-Saxons, an offshoot from the same great race. But, as appeared also in that instance, the great religious change alluded to could not at once extricate the people from the intellectual darkness in which they were plunged, or prevent the growth and spread of a host of familiar superstitions, not so gloomy in their character, but as wild and fanciful as those which the followers of Odin brought from their native plains of Asia. Nowhere, indeed, in the whole world, has this order of superstitions, which, for want of a better term, have been called familiar, prevailed so extensively, or flourished so luxuriantly, as among the German and Scandinavian nations, from the era of the introduction of Christianity up almost till the present hour. 

   The people of Northern Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and the northern islands, who were originally followers of Odin, adopted in later times very nearly the same class of familiar superstitions, though the names of their spirits and supernatural beings are sometimes found to differ. These names are amazingly numerous. Dwarfs (of various descriptions, white, brown, and black), Trolls (or Trows, the same nearly as Dwarfs), Elves (Elfs and Elf-maids), Nises, Kobolds, Necks, Nixes, Mermen and Mermaids, are but a few of the supernatural beings who flourish in the popular creed of the countries alluded to. The Northmen hold the opinion that all these beings were originally subjected by greater powers, and were doomed in consequence to take up certain assigned abodes and duties. The Dwarfs, or hill-trolls, were appointed to the hills; the Elves, to the groves and trees; the Hill-people, to the caves; and the Mermen, Mermaids, and Necks (or River-spirits), to the seas, lakes, and rivers; and so on.1 

The Dwarfs or Trolls are the race most universally believed in, with the exception, perhaps, of the Elves or Elfi. The families or nations of the Trolls live in splendid mansions, in the interior of hills, or under level ground. Their figure is represented as being extremely slight and deformed. They dress variously, but have usually grey jackets, with pointed red caps. Sometimes they wear mist-caps, as they are called, which render them invisible. Trolls are not held to be malignant beings, and have often had friendly intercourse with mankind. Out of the immense chests of gold which they possess, they are said often to have bestowed fortunes on people who have had the luck to please them. But, upon the whole, the Trolls are rather disagreeable neighbours, having an inveterate propensity to pilfering, which they sometimes carry to the extent of kidnapping women and children. Fortunately there are various ways of banishing, from any particular spot, these little gentlemen with the humps. long noses, and high red caps. Drums, bells, and, above all, church-bells, are things they cannot endure. These noises drive them off immediately, and in such a humour, that they generally seek to revenge themselves upon the inhabitants of the place they have left. In “The Fairy Mythology,” a clever little book published two years ago, and which gives us much information on these subjects, we find the following account of a Troll’s revenge. A Troll had once been forced away from the village of Kund, in Zealand, by the church-bells, and having seen, at the place to which he removed, a person belonging to Kund, “ ‘Will you just be so kind,’ said the Troll, ‘as to take a letter for me back to Kund?’ The man said, of course, he had no objection. The Troll then thrust the letter into his pocket, and charged him strictly not to take it out till he came to Kund church, and then to throw it over the churchyard wall, and the person for whom it was intended would get it.” On reaching Zealand, the man sat down in a meadow to rest himself, and, remembering the letter, “felt a great desire to look at it, at least. So he took it out of his pocket, and sat a while with it in his hands, when suddenly there began to dribble a little water out of the seal. The letter now unfolded itself, and the water came our faster and faster, and it was with the utmost difficulty that the poor man was enabled to save his life, for the malicious Troll had enclosed an entire lake in the letter. The Troll, it is plain, had thought to avenge himself on Kund church, by destroying it in this manner; but heaven so ordered it, that the lake chanced to run out in the great meadow where it now flows.” Such was the origin of Tüs Lake, and such the issue of a Troll’s revenge. 

   In Germany, the Trolls receive commonly the name of Dwarfs, but their character and habits, under both appellations, are much the same. Sometimes, like the Brownies of Scotland, the Dwarfs assist workmen, either openly or otherwise. On one occasion, they used to come frequently, says the story, to visit a band of field labourers in the hay-making season. Sometimes they would assist the workmen, but more commonly preferred to seat themselves in a cluster upon the branch of a maple-tree, overlooking the field. “But some mischief-loving people came one night and sawed the branch nearly through. The unsuspecting Dwarfs, as usual, sat down on it in the morning; the branch snapt in two, and the Dwarfs were thrown to the ground. When the people laughed at this, they became greatly incensed, and cried out, 

‘O how is heaven so high, 

And perfidy so great! 

Here to-day and never more!’ 

And being people of their word, they never were seen again.” 

   The Elves of the north do both good and evil to mankind; or rather there are Good Elves, and Evil Elves, who respectively comport themselves in a way correspondent with these epithets. The former are a race of minute beings, ever dancing on the grass, or lurking under the leaves of trees or the cups of flowers, frolicsome as the breeze, and musical as its murmur among the summer boughs. Like the Fairies of Scotland, the Elves are held to live in a state of mingled hope and doubt as to their chance of ultimate redemption. They have kings and queens, and ride in stately coaches, with gorgeous trappings. The little circles of green grass, which are called with us fairy-rings, are the elf-rings of the north, and are the spots where the Elves foot it merrily by night. There is one remarkable peculiarity in the Danish Elle-women, or female Elves. The Elle-woman is fair and captivating, and plays beautiful music to attract young men; but let these beware of her, for she, though a fair woman in her front aspect, is hollow in the back, like a dough-trough. This the Elle-women endeavour to hide, but if the sign of the cross be made, they must turn round, and their strange deformity is seen. So runs the tradition of the Danes. The malicious Elves live underground, beneath the houses of mankind, and the inhabitants above, according to their cleanliness or good behaviour, are objects of liking or dislike to the subterranean residents. It is curious that the Irish at this very day give a similar habitation to their fairies, and hold the same opinions respecting them, in almost every particular. 

   The Nis of the modern Scandinavians is the Brownie of Scotland, the Kobold of Germany, and probably the Friar Rush or Robin Goodfellow of England, a useful drudging spirit, to whom Milton alludes, when he makes his rustic 

“Tell how the drudging Goblin swate, 

To earn his cream bowl duly set; 

When, in one night, ere glimpse of morn, 

His shadowy flail hath threshed the corn 

That ten day-labourers could not end; 

Then lies him down the lubber-fiend, 

And stretched out all the chimney’s length, 

Basks at the fire his hairy strength, 

And crop-full out of doors he flings, 

Ere the first cock of matin rings.” 

This is an admirable picture of the friendly house-spirit of all countries, and without whom no farm-house, it was at one time supposed, could thrive. Alluding to this circumstance, the Fairy historian already quoted observes, “Well is it for the maids and the men when they are in favour with the Nis. They may go to their beds and give themselves no trouble about their work, and yet in the morning the maids will find the kitchen swept up, and water brought in, and the men will find the horses in the stable well cleaned and curried, and perhaps a supply of corn cribbed for them from their neighbours’ barns.” The origin of the idea of the NIs or house-spirit is pretty intelligible. In the rude and troublous times of all countries, or during the days of religious persecution, persons in hiding would naturally seek shelter in rural districts, from such as knew them or favoured their cause. But this shelter could not be granted openly, and hence those who received it would be under the necessity of remaining in concealment by day, and could only come out at night to procure food. To repay the hospitality of their resetter, it is naturally to be supposed that they would be willing to do such work for him as could be done under the circumstances. The consumption of food, and the noise of working, would be laid to the door of the Nisses, and the secret be maintained. In Scotland, in very recent times, a case really occurred in which religious sufferers played the part of Brownie in this manner; the tradition afforded to the Ettrick Shepherd the foundation of his well-known tale, “the Brownie of Bodsbeck.” 

   Many are the stories told of the Nis and the Kobold. They are as annoying in the character of enemies as they are agreeable in the capacity of friends, and when they once attach themselves to a household, either for good or evil, it is scarcely possible to get quit of them. There is a Jutland story (told also in Ireland and many other countries), of a man who was annoyed by the presence of a mischievous Nis in his dwelling, and who resolved to quit it for another. Every thing was packed, accordingly, and put on carts for removal; and the good man was inwardly congratulating himself on his approaching liberation from his late pest, when, just before moving, he chanced to turn to the back part of one of the carts, and there saw the Nis sitting quietly and coolly in one of the empty tubs. The poor man’s countenance fell sadly, and more so when the Nis popped his head out of the tub, and cried, “Ha! we are moving to-day, farmer!” According to one version of the story, the farmer, seeing the case to be hopeless, ordered the carts to be unloaded, and went quietly back to his house, after which time the tricky Nis became a good friend. In telling a similar story of their Kobold, the Germans say that, before departing with his furniture, the farmer set fire to the barn, in order to burn the tricky “lubber-fiend,” and was just driving off, when to his mortification he saw the Kobold behind him on the cart, crying, “It was time for us to come out, farmer – it was time for us to come out!” The cool and determined association of fates and fortunes, indicated by the us of the Kobold, is most amusing! 

   The Nis, however, is a most useful fellow when he likes, as has been mentioned. Every thing thrives under his vigilant eye. He steals fodder for his host’s cattle at all hands; and, according to the stories told of him, he seems often to have shown himself familiarly to those about him. In this intercourse he revenged affronts or injuries very seriously. For example, while a Jutland Nis was one day amusing himself with sunning up and down the loft of the cow-house, and practising gymnastics, seemingly, for the good of his health, one of his legs slipped through a hole, and a boy below took a hay-fork and gave the Nis a smart rap over the shin of the pendent limb. The boy went into the house laughing, and being asked the cause, he replied, “Oh, I got such a blow at Nis to-day, and gave him such a swanking rap with my fork when he put his leg through the loft!” “No,” cried Nis outside of the window, “you gave me three blows, for the fork was three-pronged; but see if I don’t pay you for it, my lad.” The Nis kept his word. Next night, while the boy slept, the Nis lifted him out of bed, and going out of doors, commenced a novel game at ball by tossing the lad over the house, and catching him again ere he fell, by running to the other side. This pleasant recreation the Nis kept up till he got tired, and then let the boy fall into a great pool, setting up a shout at the same time, which brought out all the people to be witnesses of his revenge.2 The Nis is described as being like the Dwarf in appearance, but as possessing immense strength. 

   The Neck, a Scandinavian spirit, and called Nökke by the Danes, is said to sit frequently on the surface of the water, in the shape of a boy with golden ringlets, and a red cap, or as a handsome youth, shaped below like a fish. It is curious that in all countries and in all ages mankind have attributed fine musical powers to all the imaginary beings with whom they have peopled the sea, probably because the original belief in many of them may have sprung from the accidental transmission of music over water by night, when, as is well known, the effect is beautiful. The superstition of the Neck is connected in an interesting manner with our faith. The spirit is said to play exquisitely on a golden harp, and it is stated that he will teach the art to any one who will present him with a black lamb, and promise him redemption, the fear of losing which makes him continually melancholy. In Sweden it is related that two boys were sitting near a river, when a Neck came to the surface and played sweetly to them. One of the boys said, “What is the use of your sitting there and playing? You will never be saved.” The Neck flung away his harp, wept sorely, and disappeared. On going home, the boys told this to their father, who was a clergyman, and he told them to go back and console the Neck with hopes of salvation. The children went back, and said to the spirit, who had reappeared, and was still weeping, “Neck, do not grieve so; our father says that your Redeemer liveth also.” The Neck resumed his harp, and rewarded the promise-bringers with sweet playing till the sun was gone down. 

   Mermen and Mermaids are of northern creation, and in the north they are still firmly believed in, up to this hour. It is needless to describe the Mermaid. Every one, from the time of Horace downwards, knows that creature to be 

“A handsome woman with a fish’s tail.” 

Combing their long yellow hair with a golden comb, they sit breast-high in the sea, singing sweetly, but are dangerous to approach, for their beauty and music entice the unwary into an element which brings death to man. It is supposed that the notion of the existence of Mermaids and Mermen originated in the resemblance which a certain species of seals, when partially seen in the water, bear to the upper part of the human body. 

   This list by no means comprehends all the fanciful beings with whom the German and northern nations have peopled the air, the earth, and the sea; but the majority of those not noticed are merely modifications, as it were, of the classes which have been described. It would be superfluous to remark gravely on the absurdity of these superstitions, which can affect no mind, however partially enlightened, otherwise than to a smile. It is curious, however, to trace them to the natural circumstances out of which the ignorant and wondering peasantry originally formed them – to find, for instance, works which cunning persons had probably executed during the night for their own ends, attributed next morning to spirits of good or evil disposition, and circles of greener grass which had been produced by a simple scorching of the ground where electricity had passed into the earth, ascribed to the wheeling dances of the elves. The clown and the philosopher both seek for the reasons of things, for this is an invariable tendency of human nature; but the difference between the two lies here – that the clown rests satisfied with some vague suggestion of his fancy, while the philosopher takes nothing for certain till accurate observation and just logic have proved it. 

1  The term “Old Nick,” a name given in modern times to the devil, is derived from the Neck or Nix of the Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons. 

2  Fairy Mythology.

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